‘To the Moon’ was my #3 game of 2011 because its innovative and touching story was one I had not experienced before in a video game. Kan Gao is the person behind Freebird Games, the publisher of ‘To the Moon’ and his previous games, ‘The Mirror Lied’ and ‘Quintessence: The Blighted Venom.’ Each of his games has a well-crafted soundtrack, an art style reminiscent of older RPGs, and stories that explore the themes of memory, perception, and constructing your own reality.
Curious about the mind responsible for creating such unique gems, I contacted Kan Gao; due to his busy schedule (he’s getting ready to attend GDC), we communicated by email. During the interview, I learned more about him, some exciting news for ‘To the Moon’ fans, and that he has an interesting sense of humor.
Sometimes it is good to start at the beginning. Do you remember what game hooked you into video games?
That’d be either ‘Diablo’ or a foreign RPG about a kid who can talk to animals. It’s been so long that I forgot which is the chicken and which is the egg.
And yes, I hold the knowledge of the definitive answer to that question.
Have you always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy? If so, what are some of your favorite stories?
Yep! I think I started off heavily leaning toward fantasy, but drifted more and more to sci-fi as time went on. For that reason, many of my fantasy favourites are actually foreign ones (as I’ve only immigrated to Canada halfway through my life thus far); you know, those Asian TV shows where people are flying all over the place. Good times. I still miss it.
As for sci-fi, some favourites are ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, and ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. If ‘Animorphs’ count, I’d like to include that too – I practically learned English from reading that series back then.
When did you know you wanted to make games? Was it a process or a sudden realization?
It was a dark and stormy night, and I was working on my attempt at a novel when I suddenly wanted to do more than metaphorically walk in the world that I created. I started looking into ways to do that, and games just felt like such a natural and potent choice to be explored.
I’m curious about your background. You’re the director, designer, composer, and illustrator of your games. Are you self-taught or did you go to school for art and music?
I just completed my degree in business management and computer science, so I suppose I’m not technically officially trained for the artistic roles. What I do for that side of things almost solely came from making these games in the past five years.
Though to be fair, I haven’t been doing much on the graphics side of things with the newest projects like ‘To the Moon’. I’ve had the fortune of having some really talented people helping with the visual aspect, and I only had to soften the edges with making poses for the sprites and the like.
I enjoyed composing most of the soundtrack for ‘To the Moon’, which also featured a special song called “Everything’s Alright” by Laura Shigihara. I think if you look closely at my music purely from a technical point of view, it’s actually not very prominent, but a game benefits so much from having multiple aspects of the medium tie together effectively; the unity that results from having one person doing the music and the actual story really helps with the overall effect and kind of patches the technical frailties up a bit.
There are many ways games are created. What was the process in creating your first game, ‘Quintessence: The Blighted Venom’? Did you develop your own engine?
Despite being a (partial) computer science major, I’m not actually much of a programmer — had I developed my own engine, the games probably would’ve become vaporware years ago. The engine I used is actually somewhat notorious and is seen as a toy by many: RPG Maker XP. I think it’s misunderstood, and the reputation mostly came from the low barrier to entry because a flood of projects was made by curious individuals making games with it in the program’s first days.
What do you use to compose the music? Have you ever composed a piece before creating the game?
I started composing because of making games, so I owe it to that at least! The program I use to compose is Finale; afterwards, various production programs are used accordingly, such as Sonar.
How did Freebird Games start? What are your plans for the company?
It started in my bedroom with me messing about. In a way, that’s still somewhat true – but just with a much better equipped bedroom. There aren’t any staff members at the moment, though I have been commissioning various aspects of the projects, such as some of the artworks. It’s still a bit early for official expansion, but I’ve definitely been thinking of it in case opportunities arise in the future.
On your site, you goal is “to create a ‘game’ that takes the player through a story in the form of an immersive interactive show.” Could you explain what you mean by this statement?
I think interaction is something extremely powerful – and even just doses of it, as long as carefully strategized, can go a long way to enhance the immersion of a story. I’ve always been a big fan of the method of story delivery in old school RPGs, but I was often put off by the random battles and never-ending mazes when I was attached to their stories.
So I suppose Freebird Games is to serve that particular niche, the one with players who share similar interests as me.
‘To the Moon’ has been described as a sequel to ‘Inception’ or a reverse ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ What do you think of that description?
There was definitely influence from ‘Eternal Sunshine’ – and I actually often think about the game’s foundations in terms of its reverse as well.
‘To the Moon,’ like your other games, deals with the ideas of perception, reality, and memory. Do you have a general interest in these ideas or is there a personal connection?
It’s just something I’m personally curious about. The fact that what we know to be true is solely based on what we perceive is just so mysteriously intriguing to me, and I think it’s something that many people wonder about as well.
I cried from the moment when we learn the meaning of the rabbits to the end. You created a very poignant game. Was it difficult for you to write or was it cathartic?
Cathartic, I think . . . though that might be because when writing the story, I initially just framed what I wanted to feel as an audience at the very end of the story, and I worked toward that — finally getting to that point as an author just felt like all the tension was relieved.
Do you have any plans for another game with the doctors from ‘To the Moon,’ Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts?
Certainly. ‘To the Moon’ is the first episode of a series, each being semi-standalone, with a different patient and their own life story. Eva and Neil will be the connection the episodes will share, and they will have an overarching story of their own.
What projects are you currently working on? What are you willing to tell me about any of your new projects?
I’ve been mentally working on Episode 2, I suppose! There will be a bonus mini-episode between the two, which will be very brief (and free).
Do you have any plans to make ‘To the Moon’ or any of your other games available on Steam? What about another platform like Xbox 360?
Certainly! Here’s hoping it’ll be available on Steam soon. It’s harder to say about other non-PC platforms, though, since there are some technical barriers with porting the game due to its particular engine.
Double Fine recently had great success with Kickstarter. Have you considered using Kickstarter or a similar fundraising method?
Certainly again! Although, I think after their impressive success, there will be an incoming flood of indie game projects attempting to get on the wagon. It might happen for Episode 3, particularly if I were to switch the engine along with other technical changes that would result in more significant funds required, but I think I’ll be able to hang on for Episode 2.
I’ve noticed you are active in the site’s forums. Why did you decide to have a strong presence in the forums?
Freebird Games’ forum? Are you kidding? It’s my home on the internet! The folks there are wonderful, and many have been kindly and enthusiastically supporting me through the past five years. I couldn’t be where I am today without them.
I understand game developers sometimes don’t have much time to play games. What games are you currently playing? Are there any games you are looking forward to?
Simple: Replaying ‘Mass Effect 2’ and looking forward to ‘Mass Effect 3’.
What do you think the gaming industry will be like in 10 years? Your games are only available on the website. Do you think all games will be digital and the role of publishers will not be as prevalent as today?
I think gaming as a whole will be more mainstream in terms of availability – which would also mean indie games will become more available and accessible, helped by the development of digital distribution. There will still be merits to physical copies, but they’d probably decline by about 42%. You know, typical predictions. I’m not much of a predictor, except that I can tell you that on the 18th of January 2016, I’m going to find out about the meaning of life at 3:18 am.
I would like to end with a fun question. If you could live as yourself in any video game world (one you did not create), which game would you select and why?
I don’t know, but certainly not ‘Skyrim’; everyone who’s ever echoed an arrow-in-the-knee joke would probably have chosen to go there, and they’d have actual arrows in their knees. That’d be a lot of arrows, a lot of groaning, and very few working knees. Bad for the economy.
Kan Gao’s clear vision and a distinct voice make him a developer that has the potential to bring us many charming and captivating games, which is why I’m very excited about the news of more games featuring Eva and Neil. They are fascinating characters that have an interesting professional relationship; their banter brings some comic relief to a very emotionally tense game. ‘To the Moon’ is available on the Freebird Games site; you can play the first hour for free. The game recently became available on OnLive and OnLive’s Facebook app, which means Mac users can play the game. The soundtrack is available as a digital album. You can follow Kan Gao on Twitter (@reives_freebird) and get updates on Freebird Games’ Facebook page.